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Christmas in Bucksnort
By Cara DiPaolo

What is it about the holidays that makes us temporarily forget how misguided the concept of family togetherness is? Are we all so highly suggestible that the media with its perpetually playing Wonderful Lifes and Miracle on 34th Streets actually makes us believe that we, too, have a warm, loving family where people with smooth hair and fabulously tailored ensembles welcome us home with tears of joy? Are we forgetting what our families look like? Maybe if we'd bothered to get last year's Christmas photos developed we would've noticed that in every picture our wild-haired, sweat-pant clad loved ones are either asleep or mid-argument. We might recall that the tears on our little nieces and nephews faces are not tears of joy, but of resentment over getting the green flashing toothbrush instead of the RED one.

But no, whenever the holidays roll around we somehow get it into our thick little heads that being together will be fun, possibly the most fun we'll have all year. I can't wait to see you! we all say excitedly, forgetting that last year after a few days of living under the same roof with those same people, we were ready to rip their legs off and beat them over the head with them. We giddily pack our perfumes and ties, our good jewelry and a series of fancy outfits conveniently misremembering that during past holiday vacations we never once left the house or our pajamas, or even took a shower for that matter. How can we keep fooling ourselves, year after year after year? It's a baffling phenomenon.

Last year for Christmas my parents decided to rent a rural lakeside house in Bucksnort, Tennessee for a week of familial bonding. Why Bucksnort, you say? Why not Nashville or Memphis or better yet, some place where fringe doesn't constitute formal wear? "It's cheap, kiddo," my dad explained, "Plus, this place has a bed that hangs from the ceiling and swings!" Yee. Haw.

Because my husband Andrew wanted to see his family before being forcibly incarcerated with mine, we flew to our mutual home state of Maryland and made plans to drive to Tennessee with my parents. Now you'd think that a minivan that seats ten people and can fit a tiger in its trunk would be big enough for four people and week's worth of luggage. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

My parents are excessive people. Everything about them is too much-from their giant, oversized barcaloungers to their giant, oversized sweatpants, to their giant, oversized guffaws -- they have never understood the concept of understated. This, of course, trickles into their buying habits. My parents worship at the temple of Costco. They buy things in one size, XX-bulk. And if there's a sale of any kind, whether they need it or not, they buy it by the truckload. My dad once bought 39 jars of peanut butter because they were on sale 3 for $10. "What a deal, Hon! I mean, you can't beat that!" my dad said, proudly describing how he bought out the stock from five different grocery stores. I think, all in all, he saved a total of $5.00. Less gas, of course… and if you don't take into account that he spent $130.00 to begin with... and that he bought the smooth peanut butter instead of the chunky that we all like.

Thus, for the two day drive to Bucksnort, Andrew and I found ourselves tightly wedged in amidst a wealth of bulky, cheaply bought items-many of them wrapped up, not so discreetly, as Christmas presents-the vague outline of a can of WD-40 here, the tell-tale sound of cereal rattling in boxes there. That's also been a long-standing tradition in the DiPaolo household. Not having the storage or really the need for half the items they get "great deals" on, my parents got in the habit of disguising said items as presents. I distinctly remember a surprise birthday party in my early teens when I unwrapped a five-gallon tub of Noxzema in front of a roomful of my friends. It was one of those character-defining moments you never forget. I had that Noxzema all the way up into my junior year of college.

The car ride was relatively uneventful. For most of the drive down we followed my sister, Rita, and thus had the privilege of hearing many loud, breathy renditions of yuletide carols as sung by my tuneless niece and nephews over the CB radios my parents bought for inter-car communication. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Had a very shiny nose. Like a light bulb!! Luckily, my dad had filled the radios with cheap generic batteries he got on sale, so we only had to suffer for an hour or so.

By some miracle of fate we all arrived at the rural house in Bucksnort around the same time. My brother Mike and his wife had flown in with their two young boys and pulled up in their rental just as we were beginning to unload the cars. None of us kids were expecting much from this place. This wasn't the first family getaway trip my parents had put together and we had learned the hard way that brochure photos could not be trusted. But I had to admit that at least from the outside, the house pretty much resembled its advertised image. Yes, there were an inordinate amount of lawn jockeys, and some cigarette-filled ashtrays lined the front walk, but they were evenly spaced apart. And to be fair, the pile of empty beer cans in the tall planter by the front door actually looked kind of nice -- like a colorful aluminum welcoming torch.

Upon entering, however, we were greeted by a shocking sight. Mounted on the wall opposite us was a massive hissing tiger, frozen mid-leap and staring down at us hungrily from atop his rocky perch. The kids scattered, shrieking with fear. But that wasn't even the scariest thing in the room. Displayed on standing easels by the living room fireplace were two life-sized photos -- one of a baby floating eerily in a sea of black, below which "Destiny" was written in fanciful gold-lettering; the other, of a smiling mullet-haired boy holding up the sagging head of a recently slaughtered deer -- which appeared to be tracking my every move with its dead glazed eyes.

Every room seemed to have its own theme. If the living room's theme was creepy life-sized family photos, the two upstairs bedrooms' themes were basketballs and enormous porcelain dogs. Downstairs in the master bedroom, where the infamous swinging bed was located -- the theme was simply tacky. It had mirrored walls, a mirrored ceiling and even mirrored bedside tables on which plastic flowers and heart-shaped candles rested and reflected into infinity. On the one non-mirrored wall, hung faded framed photographs of clinking champagne glasses in the glinting light of a dissolving sun and a solitary sailboat out at sea in the glinting light of a dissolving sun and finally, just a picture of the glinting light of a dissolving sun.

As usual, Andrew and I being the only couple without kids got the cheap end of the bedroom stick otherwise known as the porch. That first night as we struggled for several hours to find a cushiony spot on the cracker thin futon mattress, we became aware of the winds. Though the porch was, thankfully, enclosed, its windowed walls lacked the insulation necessary to keep out the blistering December air. Try as we might to find warmth beneath the whimsical basketball quilt my sister kindly gave us from off her bed, it became evident that we'd need heat from the master bedroom to which the porch was attached-the one my parents were occupying.

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